Jeleva pull-out upsets Barroso II plans

Rumiana Jeleva, the embattled Bulgarian commissioner-designate, announced her resignation from all political responsibilities on Tuesday (19 January), following accusations of wrongdoing during a parliamentary confirmation hearing last week. A vote on the new college is now scheduled for 9 February.

In a statement, the European Commission announced that Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian World Bank official, had been nominated to replace Jeleva as commissioner-designate for Bulgaria. 

“Today, [Commission] President [José Manuel] Barroso took note of Ms. Jeleva’s withdrawal as commissioner-designate,” read a statement released by the president’s office, adding: “He fully respects this personal decision.” 

Jeleva also announced her resignation as Bulgarian foreign minister. 

It was still unclear whether Georgieva would be attributed the same humanitarian aid and crisis response portfolio that had been attributed to her predecessor, suggesting a wider reshuffle could take place in the Barroso II team. 

A vote of the Barroso II Commission will most probably take place on 9 February, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek announced today (19 January). But he did not rule out portfolio changes among “problematic” commissioners. 

By backing Jeleva on 15 January, Commission President Barroso put himself on a collision course with the European Parliament’s socialists and liberals, who loudly called for her replacement following a confirmation hearing last week (EURACTIV 15/01/10). 

During the hearing, Jeleva failed to counter accusations of conflict of interest and gave disappointing answers on policy issues, showing for example that she did not know where the Gulf of Aden was situated (EURACTIV 13/01/10). 

Speaking in Strasbourg, Joseph Daul MEP, chairman of the European People’s Party (EPP) group, said he rejected the accusations against Jeleva, which he said were “unfounded”. 

“I protest against this way of making politics,” Daul said, adding he was still of the opinion that Jeleva was fit for the job. 

József Szájer MEP, who is responsible for overseeing the commissioners’ parliamentary hearings on behalf of the EPP group, added that Jeleva’s “personal integrity” had been restored after the Parliament and Commission legal services had issued favourable opinions regarding her statements of financial interest. 

Socialist group chairman Martin Schulz rejected the view that Jeleva was qualified for the job of commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid, pointing to problems which could be created if a person without the necessary qualifications were to deal with responses to such a difficult situation as the earthquake in Haiti. 

“I regret the way in which the EPP group tried desperately to save her despite her performance. It was a serious mistake to put political allegiance before basic competence to do the job,” Schulz said. 

Parliamentary sources told EURACTIV that Jeleva had already expressed the wish to withdraw in the hours after her hearing on 12 January (EURACTIV 13/01/10). However, she was strongly advised by EPP leaders to stay in the race, the sources added. 

Sources in Sofia told EURACTIV that Prime Minister Boyko Borissov had become conscious of the fact that the accusations against Jeleva were harming his party, GERB. According to these sources, Borissov could have replaced her days ago, but again, the strategy of the centre-right Brussels politicians had been to keep Jeleva, who was recently elected EPP vice-president. 

Jeleva’s replacement, Kristalina Georgieva, is currently vice-president of the World Bank and has been working there since 1993, first in environmental and then social areas. She has also been the Bank’s representative to Russia, and served as director responsible for the World Bank Sustainable Development Network. 

Commission reshuffle? 

Speaking in Strasbourg, EPP group chairman Joseph Daul MEP appeared to suggest that Jeleva’s departure could imply portfolio changes for other commissioners. 

Daul reiterated the view that Olli Rehn, the Finnish commissioner-designate for economic and monetary affairs, and Dutch Commissioner Neelie Kroes, responsible for the digital agenda (who are both ALDE-affiliated), had not performed well in their hearings. 

He also attacked High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton (UK, Labour), for allegedly taking days off over the weekend despite the dramatic situation in Haiti. Regardless of the fact that the hearing of Greek Commissioner-designate Maria Damanaki, a Socialist, was still ongoing, he said he had received signals that her performance was not good. 

In Brussels, a Commission spokesperson could not confirm today that Georgieva would have the same portfolio as Jeleva. Should too many changes to portfolios take place, then the hearings procedure would drag on and it would take longer to put the Barroso II team in place, Parliament sources said. 

The sources confirmed that Georgieva will be in Strasbourg as soon as Thursday 21 January, to meet for the first time with Commission President Barroso, EPP representatives and the Parliament’s development committee, which would audition her presuming that she keeps the same portfolio as Jeleva. 

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Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said he rejected Jeleva's resignation as foreign minister, according to a report published today by Dnevnik, EURACTIV's partner publication in Bulgaria. 

Borissov showed Jeleva's letter to the press, in which she announced her resignation from all her posts. His responded by agreeing: "Yes, but only as commissioner." 

He added that in a recent conversation with Joseph Daul anout Jeleva, the EPP group chairman had told him: "Boyko, this is not your problem. This is our problem." 

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek announced that the hearing of the new Bulgarian commissioner-designate would take place on 3 February, adding that the vote in plenary on the Barroso II team had been scheduled for 9 February, just ahead of the EU spring summit on 11 February. 

Buzek said that Kristalina Georgieva, the new Bulgarian commissioner-designate, was expected to receive a questionnaire before the end of this week. 

"I am almost sure about such an agenda," said Buzek, speaking in English. He said the Parliament will hold its Conference of Presidents on Thursday morning, 21 January, and all such details are expected to be addressed on this occasion. 

Asked by EURACTIV about a possible change of portfolios, he did not exclude this possibility, adding that such a scenario would present a clear case for new hearings to take place in the meantime. But he insisted that the ultimate decision regarding portfolio changes lies with Commission President Barroso. 

Greens/EFA group Co-President Daniel Cohn-Bendit also told the press that he expected portfolio changes. 

"It is obvious that a number of auditions did not go well. We have to see how we can respond to these setbacks," Cohn-Bendit said. 

In particular, Cohn-Bendit criticised Catherine Ashton, Commission vice-president responsible for foreign relations in the present executive and High Representative for Foreign Affairs in the Barroso II team, for having "disappointed" at the hearing, and also for not having "found the time" to go to earthquake-hit Haiti, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently did. 

The Green group co-chair also blamed Barroso for the the way he had managed the crisis, which dragged on from Jeleva's hearing on 12 January until her resignation. "What happened between yesterday evening [18 January] and this morning? What persuaded [Barroso] to change his mind?," Cohn-Bendit asked. 

He added that what Jeleva was criticised for regarding her declarations of interest could also apply to many MEPs, referring to the discrepancies between financial statements made in her country and in Brussels, and also the lack of clarity over the precise requirements. 

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE  group in the European Parliament, said that the new Bulgarian candidate "appears to be well-suited to leading EU crisis response and humanitarian relief, which is so much in the spotlight at the moment as a result of the natural disaster in Haiti," he said.

"If she is confirmed by Parliament, I am confident that President Barroso will then have a strong and motivated team of commissioners to define and develop EU policy over the next five years. Parliament should then move swiftly to confirm the new Commission in office in early February to enable it to become operational without further delay," he added.

Elise Ford, head of Oxfam International's EU office, said that Bulgaria must put forward a strong candidate, especially in the context of the crucial role which the new EU humanitarian aid commissioner is expected to play in earthquake-hit Haiti. 

"With backing from all relevant EU players, Bulgaria's replacement for Rumiana Jeleva must demonstrate the ability to handle this new dossier facing an enormous set of challenges, from Somalia to Gaza and Sudan." 

"Millions of people around the world depend on the EU's humanitarian aid. The new candidate must have solid experience as well as the confidence to advocate for the needs of people affected by conflicts and natural disasters," Ford stated. 

With the exception of the European People's Party (EPP), European Parliament members have rallied across party lines against Rumiana Jeleva, Bulgarian commissioner-designate for humanitarian aid and crisis response, who failed to impress during her parliamentary audition on 12 January. 

Before her appointment as commissioner-designate, Jeleva was Bulgaria's foreign minister. She was also recently elected EPP vice-president. 

Jeleva was already seen as the most problematic of the 26 commissioners-designate, mainly due to allegations of conflict of interest, for which she had failed to provide a satisfactory explanation in the run-up to the hearing (EURACTIV 17/12/09 and 08/01/10). 

In a last-minute development, a leading Bulgarian MEP said that Jeleva was the CEO of a company established by the former communist secret services in Liechtenstein (EURACTIV 19/01/10). 

  • 21 Jan: Kristalina Georgieva to visit Strasbourg; European Parliament to host Conference of Presidents. 
  • 3 Feb.: Georgieva's hearing in the European Parliament.
  • 9 Feb.: Parliament to vote on new college of commissioners.

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